The 7 Most Common Mistakes in Modern Dog Training

Training dogs with food has become commonplace in "Modern" dog training but there is still a lot of resistance to the idea as well. Most of the resistance goes something like "I want my dog to work for me, not for treats!" This is not an unwarranted concern of course and I have seen my fair share of "show me the money" dogs. These are the dogs that must be bribed with a treat for every behavior. It goes something like "Cookie! Here puppy-puppy! Wanna treat?" as they shake a bag full of Fluffy's favorite treats begging for compliance. I'm sure you've seen this too, right? You may even be guilty of this yourself or perhaps you are one of those who view scenes like this as valid reason to avoid training dogs with food in the first place. In either case this article is meant just for you.

The message of this article is that food dependency problems happen due to mistakes in the training, not simply because food was involved in the training. Of course dogs can be trained without food but it can also be an invaluable part of dog training for building trust, motivation and rapid, enthusiastic learning. The key phrase being part of it, not the whole of it.

Below are 7 steps for using food in dog training correctly, so you don't wind up with a dog that will only work for food.

Step 1: Fading the Lure - Luring is the process of holding a piece of food right in front of a dog's nose and enticing the dog to follow it. The food is then used to guide the dog into various positions or activities. You can "Lure" the dog into a sitting position, over a piece of agility equipment, to spin in circles or whatever your imagination can conjure up. This is an excellent way to "teach" a dog but not enough to "train" a dog. A trained dog will understand a visible or audible cue and will perform it reliably in a variety of circumstances, without being lured by a treat. The key to successful treat training is to "fade" the lure as quickly as possible. This means going from holding a treat in your hand to guiding the dog with an empty hand. A good trainer will usually fade the lure after a handful of repetitions but it depends on the difficulty of what is being taught. At first you will still deliver the treat after each correct performance so the dog can depend on the treat but without seeing or smelling it in your hand. Later you will start reducing the treats but that will be covered in Step 7.

Step 2: Pressure Conditioning - The missing link in most treat-based training programs is the use of physical pressure. This is due to concerns over it being cruel or harmful. Of course there can be many negative side effects if harsh or excessive but with proper conditioning the use of physical pressure can help avoid treat dependency without being cruel or harmful. By gently layering in some leash and body pressure when the dog is already following a food lure there will be little to no resistance from the dog, hence the training experience remains very positive. The dog learns that the pressure is just a communication, nothing to be feared, and that yielding to that pressure yields great rewards. This helps facilitate the fading of the lure we saw above as well as increase the reliability of the dog's response. There is no need for begging or bribing this way. Simply give one cue and follow through, not by repeating commands or pulling out a treat but by physically making it happen. Done fairly and properly this is not mean or cruel whatsoever, it is just clear and consistent communication. The art of using physical pressure in combination with the use of treats can save time, reduce resistance, create reliabilty, and deepen the bond between the dog and handler. Contrary to being cruel, the added physical contact can actually improve the human-dog relationship! (See DVD for visual demonstrations and details.)

Note: If the dog is showing signs of stress, resistance, fear, avoidance, aggression, etc. stop what you are doing because something is wrong. Focus on the food luring for a few more repetitions and then lighten way up on the pressure. You should not be forcing the dog into position, just adding very light pressure to a behavior that is already happening via the lure.

Step 3: Petting and Praise - Another thing that is missing from many treat-based training systems is petting and praise. It is very easy to get too focused on the treats and loose sight of the potential for petting and praise as rewards. This is unfortunate because physical contact can be even more rewarding than food in many cases. The problem is that you cannot easily lure a dog with petting and praise so the treats are still a valuable asset. The secret is to pet and praise while giving the treats. For example: let's say you have taught your dog to sit by luring with food and you are giving the treat as his butt touches the ground. Well done, but instead of just giving the treat be sure to also include some petting and verbal praise. Now when you begin fading the lure, as in Step 1, the dog will still be getting a reward, just not necessarily a food reward. This should also be done when introducing physical pressure as we saw in Step 2. As the dog yields to the pressure, the pressure turns into petting and praise as well as treats.

Step 4: Avoiding the Bribe - A treat becomes a bribe when it is used to entice the dog to do a behavior that is already well known and has already been asked for without a lure. For example: the dog already knows what the word "down" means as well as a hand signal. You give the verbal command but the dog does not respond so you then try the hand signal. Still the dog does not respond. You then pull out a treat, try the command again and the dog immediately lays down. That is bribery. Steps 1-3 have already gone over the basic methods for avoiding this but I still see people do this in my classes all the time. Even though I have shown them how to fade the lure, apply pressure and reward with petting, praise and treats that come after the proper response I will still see people revert to using a food lure when the dog doesn't respond to a command or hand signal....this is bribery and a direct route to a "show me the money" dog, so follow the anti-Nike campaign and just don't do it.

Step 5: Playing with Food - I know, I know, Mama always said not to play with your food but we are going to make an exception here. Food is a nice reward and most dogs will enjoy getting a tasty bit from you but think of treats like money. (See: Intrinsic Motivation in Dog Training) Try playing rather than paying. Instead of just handing the dog a piece of food try making a game out of it by adding motion. Move backwards or side to side and have the dog chase the food. This active form of high speed targeting helps reduce food dependency because the reward becomes more about the activity than the food. The chasing aspect taps into the dogs prey-drive which is often even more powerful than hunger-drive. This is why a dog with a full belly will still chase a squirrel. It's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase.

Note: Obviously the dog has to be released in order to receive this type of activity-based-reward so use a release cue or reward marker to signal the chasing sequence. (See: Rewarding Before vs After the Release)

Step 6: Varying the Rewards - A problem with many treat-based training programs is simply too much focus on treats. As seen in Step 3 there are other rewards that can be just as, if not more, satisfying than food. We also touched on the topic of motion or activity-based treat delivery in Step 5 which transfers perfectly to using toys or rough play as rewards. You can also use "environmental rewards" such as playing with other dogs, getting some affection from another person, going to sniff and pee on a bush....whatever. Anything your dog enjoys can be used to reward good behavior or compliance with obedience commands. The key to avoiding dependency on food is to mix it up a bit; use petting and play along with the food as well as in place of food, sometimes use food and sometimes play with toys or just pet and play with the dog using nothing but your hands. Be charming and put some personality into it! Above all be fun and don't be a briber.

Step 7: Raising the Bar - Sometimes treat dependency happens because trainers get so caught up in rewarding the dog for every little thing that they forget to raise the bar. Yes, there is such a thing as over rewarding! At some point a behavior moves from being exceptional to being expected. For example: once upon a time I got a big round of applause for going potty in the toilet "like a big boy." Now I'm expected to flush, put the seat down, replace the toilet paper roll, turn the fan on, turn the light off, close the door.....with no applause. In life, the bar of expectation goes up and rewards become harder to get. Dog training is no different, the bar goes up and you don't need to keep giving treats for everything. For example: In the beginning you might give a treat for every sit or down command. Next you might only give a little pet and praise for basic sits and downs but a treat after a sit or down around distractions. Next only a treat after they hold a down for a full minute. Next maybe only when they go into a down very quickly or when they sit perfectly strait and so on. Once you reach a level you are happy with (the maintenance phase) treats can be delivered randomly or phased out completely but rewards will never go away. As we have seen, there are all kinds of rewards, food is but one.

Whether or not to use food in dog training is a personal choice but if you do I hope these tips will help you to do it without dependency or bribery. Treats or no treats, training can and should always be as fun and rewarding as possible. 

Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Specialist

© Thriving Canine 2014